Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Did Gertrude Know?

I find it odd that we've never discussed this one (I had to search my archives to make sure).  In the context of Hamlet, do you think that Gertrude knew what Claudius did, or not?  Was she in on it?  When did the relationship with Claudius start - before or after the death of her husband? 

I've always taken the position that she "knows", but she's in a state of shock and denial about it. If she ever stopped to think about it she'd have to admit what she knew to be true, so she gets around that by never thinking about it.  She shows no guilt, like Claudius does ("My offense is rank...."), so it's unlikely that she is consciously aware of just how bad her actions are.  That's why in the bedroom scene her line "As kill a king?" is not so much an "Oh no, Hamlet knows!" moment, but rather the first time that she actually has to consider the reality of what she's been a part of.

But then...if that's true, and she realizes that Claudius is a murderer, she sure doesn't seem to upset by it in the later scenes.  So maybe I haven't thought this through.

Anybody else?  As I write this I wonder if perhaps she does know right along, and really does have no guilt about it, because it was Claudius she loved, so she's happy to have her husband out of the way.


Alan K.Farrar said...

'corse she don't know - no one knows, that's why it takes a ghost to tell them.

Duane said...

That doesn't make any sense, Alan. Gertrude never sees the ghost. And Claudius certainly knows.

Unless I'm missing a joke somewhere?

Bill said...

My guess is that Gertrude does not know. Before the ghost appears, Hamlet is disgusted with his mother's hasty marriage, but that seems to be the extent of her sin. The ghost tells Hamlet to focus his revenge against Claudius and to leave his mother alone.

I think in production, it's okay to make the decision that she does know, or that she suspects but doesn't want to know. If her goal is to stay Queen, then a swift marriage to a credible successor makes a lot of sense. So there is a logical way of defending the choice, but I don't think there is any evidence in the play that she knows, and my reading is that she does not.

C. B. James said...

I agree with Bill. I can't think of anything in the text that suggests she knows and I don't think playing her as in on it would work very well.

Her "innocence" serves to complicate Hamlet's situation.

Main Man said...

Having taught the play a number of times to high school students, this particular topic is one that I put to my students because I believe that a wide variety of answers exist. I believe that Gertrude's guilt, Hamlet's madness, Hamlet's age, Hamlet's relationship with his father, and Claudius' own sense of guilt are all left purposely vague. I honestly believe that Shakespeare loved being oblique.

For me Gertrude's complicity is completely dependent on directorial and actor determination. Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis won a Tony (might have been regional, but they did perform it in NYC) for a Hamlet interpretation that certainly had a Gertrude who was at least moderately complicit, much in the way that Duane describes. Zeffirelli on the other hand has a Gertrude (in Glenn Close) who is innocent (other than the ultimate Freudian version of Hamlet's Oedipus complex). Branagh's Gertrude seems genuinely "undone" by the news that Claudius has killed her husband. The Royal National Theater show starring Simon Russell Beale had a Gertrude who was completely innocent. She truly had no idea.

I would argue that we certainly do know from the ghost's speech in Act 1, Scene 5 that Claudius and Gertrude had a "relationship" before his death. While Claudius spins it that "our sometimes sister, now our wife" has married him to prevent chaos and Fortinbras from overwhelming Denmark, we are certainly left to wonder at Gertrude's comments to her son. She actually asks him why he is sad! Depending on delivery of that line, Gertrude could be cruel (knowing that Claudius killed her husband), in denial (shocked that her husband is dead and clinging to the one other man in her life), clueless (so infatuated with Claudius and their affair that she is not even registering the "coincidence"), or sad (actually commiserating in the only way that she can as Claudius's new queen). I would also argue that Gertrude is tremendously emotional in Act 3 (in her closet when Hamlet forces her to recognize at least some of her sins) and in Act 5 (when she drinks to Hamlet revealing Claudius's guilt). While her decision to drink to her son is open to debate (was she aware that Claudius had poisoned the cup? Or not?), her actions certainly cause the scales to tip in finality.

Shakespeare wanted to force his audience to think. He also wanted to give the performers the room to shape the play in whichever direction seemed most fitting. Harold Bloom argues that the Ur-Hamlet is also Shakespeare's work. He then offers the thought that Shakespeare created this "new" version, moving away from the revenge drama that the story of Almeth actually is, as a way to deal with the death of his own son Hamnet. If, as is widely believed, Shakespeare himself played the ghost, it does provide some interesting insight to Bloom's theory. Also, since we don't know when Shakespeare "left" for London, but we do know that his marriage was likely an unhappy one, perhaps the animosity toward Gertrude by Hamlet (and the Ghost's wish that she face judgment in the afterlife) is indicative of Shakespeare's own resentment toward his wife's possible infidelity - not that he was faithful in any way himself.

Sorry for the long comment, but Gertrude's guilt is something that I believe demonstrates the brilliance of the Bard. I love this blog and am thrilled to have the chance to contribute.

Linda said...

I am currently exploring Hamlet with a group of home schooling teens. It's interesting that you ask the Gertrude question as we are about to go and see our local Shakespeare theater company's production.

I'm looking at a note from the director describing her version of Hamlet. She seems to be taking a different angle with both Gertrude AND Ophelia. She asks this question ...

"What if both Ophelia and Gertrude are not the emotionally passive victims they seem, but rather active participants in the actions of the play; coconspirators with Hamlet and Claudius in their plans? What if they, too, are hiding their actions behind a submissive mask? And that far from being victims, their fate, too, is in their own hands."

She says that her production with explore those possibilities.

My class has read the play and is now in the midst of watching 6 different movie versions of Hamlet. These productions, along with the play we'll see in the park this next week, is sure to bring about many observations and opinions.

If you'd like, I'll check back in and let y'all know what the consensus is.

Duane said...

Like I said, I love the academic topics. Look at all the responses!

CB, I think there's a difference between being "complicit" and maybe perhaps being in denial about the truth under right under her nose.

Main Man, is the ghost referring to an existing relationship between Claudius and Gertrude, or the current o'erhasty one? I'd never considered that she committed suicide by drinking what she knew was poison! Interesting, and gets back to my earlier point about "If Hamlet's bedroom outburst caused her to realize the truth, how could she go back to Claudius?" Maybe she couldn't live with herself... interesting...

Linda, conversation about such topics is always welcome here, so of course you can come back any time and dig into the conversation. Personally I'm not sure your director would convince me that Ophelia's fate is in her own hands? Sure it's a fun idea - back in college I whipped up a play called "Ophelia's Song" which tackled exactly that issue, with Ophelia in on the secret to Hamlet's madness...only it turns out that Hamlet really is mad, and after the death of her father she goes nuts.

But...I'm not Shakespeare, and I wouldn't necessarily claim that that's a good interpretation. :)

Alan K.Farrar said...

No - the ghost tells Hamlet: No one (inc Hamlet) even suspected murder before.

The ghost even tells Hamlet to 'keep off your mother' - suggesting innocence of the crime (incest heaven can deal with).

There's no Lady Mac. style remorse either ...

No one seems to have fully grasped the nature of Royal Marriage and the idea that this is a political rather than a love union.

Shakespeare certainly didn't put any indication in the play that she knew - which suggests people may adapt it to make it look like she did, but that ain't Shakespeare's play ...

and we're jaw jawing Hamlet again ... snore.

Main Man said...


As you said so well, I too am not Shakespeare. When I teach this play (and the others), I love to point out to my students that there are often far more questions than answers. I personally believe that much of Shakespeare's genius is that very fact. He was so tuned into humanity that we still don't understand us as well as he did.

As for the ghost's reference, I think you can argue a pre-existing relationship or one after King Hamlet's death. Was it "o'er hasty" because it came so quickly after his death, or was it "o'er hasty" because she fell for Claudius so quickly at some point in the past (or made a hasty and passionate decision at some point in the past). One of my favorite things to toss out to my students as we discuss that is the question - why is Hamlet at Wittenberg if he is so close to his father (particularly at 30)? Could it be that Hamlet's paternity could be in doubt? Now, at one level that is a huge stretch, but when you begin to ponder the father and son relationships, it gains a modicum of credibility.

As for Gertrude and the cup, I do think Shakespeare intended it to be innocuous. Gertrude was likely doing it to upset Claudius because she had seen "the truth." Once she drinks it, she knows. But, depending on HOW Claudius's line is handled (Gertrude don't), there are many interpretations. Zeffirelli definitely has Gertrude fully aware of what she is doing. Maybe not suicide, but perhaps saving her son from death?

Thanks for putting the topic out there!

Duane said...

I did see Gertrude portrayed as an alcoholic once, which I thought was an interesting way to tie a number of these themes together. Her guilt and denial over her husband's death and her improper marriage drives her to drown her sorrows. It gives her son another reason to be disgusted by her. And it makes the final scene with the cup perfectly reasonable.

Duane said...

But Alan, there is a great deal of emphasis on the Gertrude's sex life, wouldn't you agree? That's not the sort of thing you expect to be discussing if it's supposed to be just another political union.

If you don't want to do Hamlet (looks like lots of people do), float me some topic ideas for Dream or something and I'll do equal time. I just grabbed the Gertrude question because I knew it to be a popular one.

Alan K.Farrar said...

Don't take too much notice of me - you know I hate Hamlet (goes right to the bottom of my list).

There is a lot of sex in all of Shakespeare - much of what is accused of Gertrude is ambiguous.

The Ghost is key - and if you read his words carefully he is rather like the witches in Macb: Half-truth and innuendo.

The Ghost doesn't actually say when the 'incest' Gertrude commits is committed - and it is easily read as after the death of Hamlet's dad, even though Hamlet takes it as otherwise.

And back to the issue of is the Ghost really a Ghost - or a force from Hell deceiving Hamlet into giving up his soul?

Main Man said...

I must say that I love Alan's last comment about the ghost. Since Hamlet is the only character to see the ghost and to speak to him, we are left to wonder. Particularly when the ghost reappears in the closet scene and only Hamlet can see him. Of course, his pulse "temperately keep[s] time" like Gertrude's, but when MacBeth saw Banquo and no one else did, we also see some genuine madness. I also appreciate that Hamlet is Alan's least favorite. While it is not my "favorite" (that would be Henry V), I enjoy teaching it because it has soooooo much ambiguity (sexual and otherwise).

Duane said...

But Horatio and the guards all see the ghost, no? So while that does not discount it being some sort of demon from hell, it rules out being some sort of figment of Hamlet's insanity. The second appearance might be his hallucination, but how do we explain the first? Could it be that the guards just got jumpy in the night and never really saw anything, just a sort of mass hysteria? And then Hamlet's depressed imagination and desire to see his father again takes it all from there?

Main Man said...

Remembering that I am a fan of the ambiguity of it all, yes would be my response to the questions about Horatio and the guards. Denmark is in a heightened state of turmoil - the King is dead, his brother has married his queen, young Fortinbras is considering a bid to reclaim his land, preparations are being made for war. I think any night guard would be jumpy. They see something that they think is the king's ghost, but they never speak to it. Also, Hamlet is manic (in his antic disposition) when they find him.

In the end, I do believe that there is a ghost. It is Hamlet's father's spirit. He does want Hamlet to avenge "his death," but I do not think they have a good relationship. I also think that Gertrude is guilty of an affair, but has no idea that Claudius is the cause of King Hamlet's death. I choose not to impose those ideas on my students. I would rather that they come to their own conclusions by pulling the play apart. I also constantly let them know that I see something new every time I read it.

Kudos to you, Duane, for these incredible dialogues.

Alan K.Farrar said...

Ghost = real; but devil tempting (successfully) Hamlet to the sin of revenge when he should be leaving it to Heaven.

Gertrude - didn't know - her knowing would distract from the point of the real Shakespeare boot lick: Elizabeth, your mummy and daddy were legitimately married and the divorce to his previous wife was right because marrying your brother's wife is sinful.

(Strange how all the talk of Gertrude as murderer's moll distracts - as someone indicated above.)

Jessi James said...

lets just say this, which might actually answer the whole question but I'll let you figure it out.

somewhere in the book of Hamlet tells a very important supernatural theory which, by fictional means, can apply to the story. now what I'm about to say isn't a quote but gives meaning.

---those who are truely haunted by a death, are haunted eternally by the conscience and the eternally walking spirit.---

and also important to remember is that Hamlet was not the only one to see the Hamlet Senior's Spirit walking the halls in the dead of night. the guards who were posted watchmen saw the strolling spirit. but the second time the spirit appeared to hamlet was when Hamlet Junior was scolding his mother in her sleeping quarters. BUT!!!! who was the one who asks "Alas, how is with you, That you do bend your eye on vacency And with incorperated air do hold discourse?"